Meeting the educational needs of pupils with Down syndrome in mainstream secondary schools
Gillian Bird and Sue Buckley
This article provides information and advice to secondary schools that are including a pupil with Down syndrome. The advice is based on our experience of observing and supporting individuals in secondary schools that are including pupils with Down syndrome in Portsmouth and South East Hampshire. It informs secondary schools that have not yet included a pupil with significant learning or language difficulties that the key to success is through developing systems and procedures for meeting the wide range of individual educational needs of all young people. The article emphasises the importance of developing opportunities for: (1) personal and social development, (2) teaching, differentiation and support for learning, and (3) training for staff on all issues related to disability awareness, inclusion and expectations for people with learning and language disabilities, including Down syndrome.
Bird G, Buckley SJ. Meeting the educational needs of pupils with Down syndrome in mainstream secondary schools. Down Syndrome News and Update. 1999;1(4);159-174.
The benefits of inclusion
Inclusive schools are good schools for everyone
In the authors' experience, where schools are sensitively and thoughtfully meeting the needs
of many young people with special educational needs they are usually good at meeting most of
the needs of young people with Down syndrome. These schools are often also achieving outstanding
academic outcomes in General Certificate of Secondary Education and 'A' level examinations.
For example, one of our local secondary schools has three teenagers with Down syndrome, each
with a different profile of needs, successfully included and this school was near the top of
the local league for examination results. There is no evidence that a school that is meeting
the needs of pupils with special needs is going to adversely effect the education of the other
pupils, the evidence is quite the other way around.
Inclusive schools are better than special schools for pupils with Down syndrome
The evidence is that the teenagers with Down syndrome who are being educated in mainstream schools
are gaining considerable benefits in academic skills, communication skills and social independence.
We have just completed a survey of the progress of 46 teenagers in Hampshire, of whom 18 are
in mainstream secondary education and 28 are in special schools. This study is an extension
of the one we carried out in the mid-eighties  so we are not only able to compare
the effects of mainstream versus special education but also to see if today's teenagers are
benefiting from progress in the quality of education and in social attitudes. We have collected
information on a wide range of issues including, health, behaviour, sexuality and social lives
in addition to personal and social independence, communication skills and academic progress.
We also have family views on their experiences and needs. A more detailed report of this study
and its practical implications for families and schools will be the leading article in the next
issue of Down Syndrome: News and Update (2.1) and a full research paper is in
The main point of relevance for this article and the education debate is that it is clear from
our data that children with Down syndrome benefit from being educated in mainstream schools.
The teenagers we describe as mainstreamed have received all their education in mainstream schools,
as full members of the ordinary classes, not in special classes. This group are significantly
ahead of their peers in the special schools on standardised measures of communication (receptive
and expressive spoken language), literacy, and social competence. They are not significantly
ahead on daily living skills (practical personal care). They display significantly less difficult
and anti-social behaviour than those in special schools. There is no evidence that these two
groups of children varied in ability when they went into the school system at five years of
age. At that time, most of Hampshire was still sending children with Down syndrome to special
schools but in part of the county mainstreaming was being supported. There is a wide range of
ability in both groups of young people at the present time. There are young people successfully
included in mainstream secondary schools who are less able in academic terms than many of those
still in special education.
Little progress in special schools in 12 years
The progress of the teenagers in the special schools is not significantly better on any of the
measures that we took in both 1987 and 1999, except on literacy and numeracy. We would argue
that this reflects progress in the development of a more academic curriculum in most special
schools. Progress in reading and numeracy are dependent on good instruction from the teachers.
Progress in communication, social skills and behaviour may be much more dependent on the peer
group and without the role models and friendships provided by typically developing children,
teachers in special segregated schools cannot raise outcomes, however hard they try. The findings
of our study support and extend to secondary level the conclusions of other research studies
available to date, reviewed in a recent paper by Cunningham, Glenn, Lorenz, Cuckle and Shepperdson.
They state "In terms of measures of academic attainment and self-sufficiency, there is little
evidence to show that attending special schools is more beneficial than mainstream schools in
the preschool and primary years; what evidence there is, indicates more advanced progress in
mainstream settings." 
UK experience of mainstreaming
Most experience is in the primary age-range
Examples of good practice, publications and training to assist mainstream primary schools to
meet the educational needs of children with Down syndrome are available nationally. In most
education departments children with learning disabilities attend mainstream schools, with success
usually linked with the school and supporting education department's level of inclusion awareness,
skills and development. The experience of the thousands of UK primary schools that have educated
children with Down syndrome over the last ten years has helped to develop the expertise of teachers
and other education professionals.[6-13] Fewer young people have progressed through
secondary schools, although in the past five years this situation has begun to change and significant
numbers of pupils are currently in mainstream secondary schools. Many more young people and
their parents are anticipating transfer to secondary schools in the future and the number of
mainstream secondary school pupils with Down syndrome is expected to rise sharply.
Need for secondary training and information
Information based on the experience of secondary school staff, the young people themselves and
their families is in demand by secondary schools and parents alike. It seems likely that the
circulation of information and training will be led by organisations and individuals working
to create opportunities and equality for people with Down syndrome, as it was in the past for
primary mainstreaming [6/9/10/14] rather than through a centrally led national system
of training, education and school development.
Need for a national strategy
It is right that schools should have the independence to meet each individual's educational
needs, free from labeling and associated expectations. However, the lack of clear national guidance
may continue to contribute to the inequality of educational opportunity for children with Down
syndrome. At present successful mainstream placement and quality of education are dependent
upon the practice of the education department where the child lives and on the skills and attitude
of staff working in the school attended by each child. Without adequate guidance and training
the risk for widening the gap between best and worst practice for educating pupils with learning
and language disabilities in secondary schools remains. We would like to see the same planning
and support for inclusion on a national level as there has been for the National Literacy Strategy
– that is the development of materials and a training programme that reaches all schools and
includes staff at all levels including head teachers and school governors.
The educational needs of teenagers with Down syndrome
Access up-to-date information
Through research studies and by assessing children and teenagers with Down syndrome we are now
better able to describe the development and academic progress of many children and young people
with Down syndrome [15-27]. It is important that providers of training and schools
use up to date research to inform staff, and that training information is regularly updated,
as young people with Down syndrome are constantly benefiting from improved social, leisure and
academic experiences as well as better health, family and community support services.
Recognise adult life expectations
All staff will need some training and understanding about each pupil's individual profile of
language and learning skills and how to support him or her to develop his or her skills in the
social context of a large school. Staff are also likely to benefit from developing their understanding
about the future expectations of pupils with Down syndrome for their adult lives. Most will
be able to leave home, live in some form of supported housing, enjoy supported employment and
lead quite ordinary lives in the community. Many will enjoy ordinary adult relationships with
partners and some will marry. It is so important for teachers and families to recognise that
the social, emotional and educational needs of teenagers and young adults with Down syndrome
are mostly the same of those of other children and young people. Success in the community and
in the workplace as an adult requires the opportunity to continue to grow and to learn in the
mainstream with those who will later become neighbours and work mates. All young people with
Down syndrome will do better in life with the continued support of a good mainstream secondary
school as well as continued support from their family and friends.
A wide range of individual needs
Like all young people, individuals with Down syndrome are different from each other and each
will need his or her individual educational needs met in school. Young people with Down syndrome
may have only mild learning difficulties and be little different from other slow learners in
school, others have more significant difficulties. Some will come into secondary school with
Reading Ages of 8 years to 9 years, others may have only limited independent reading skills.
The same variation will be seen in number abilities and in general and subject specific knowledge.
In terms of behaviour and personality, young people with Down syndrome vary just as widely.
Most are sociable, well-behaved and sensitive individuals, others enjoy being more challenging
in the mischievous sense. If an individual engages in really difficult behaviour then we need
to look for the causes because it means some aspect of his or her school life is not being planned
to meet his or her needs appropriately. Some are shy and some are outgoing, some anxious and
The mythology of placid, stubborn and music loving individuals is as described – myth. So is
the notion of ceilings or plateaus. All the young people that we work with or have studied continue
to grow, learn and develop all through adolescence and early adult life. Indeed, adult life
and independence often seems to offer a spurt to individual growth. While it is important to
emphasise individual differences, there are some difficulties that are associated with Down
syndrome and influence the educational progress of all young people to some degree, in particular
language and working memory difficulties.
Language and learning disabilities are associated with having Down syndrome
Delay in speech and language skills and in working memory development is to be expected for
all teenagers with Down syndrome. Most young people with Down syndrome will not have clear and
fluent expressive speech. [28-31] They will have difficulties with phonology and
articulation, so words are not always easy to understand. In addition, they have difficulty
forming long sentences with all the grammar correct. This results in rather 'telegraphic' speech
which may be difficult for teachers and friend to always understand. The majority of young people
have much better comprehension of language than their spoken language suggests, so their understanding
is at risk of being underestimated. Most young people will also have short term or working memory
difficulties.[32-37] These differences make it more difficult for people with Down
syndrome to access, understand and process information at the same speed as people who do not
have cognitive and language delay, but they do not prevent them from learning many of the same
things. They need the information presented in a clearer, more ordered way, with explanation
about the links and associations between information to build their knowledge system. They may
need more time to learn and understand and more practice to be able to apply their knowledge.
Like everyone else, they learn more and at a faster rate if interested or motivated.
At the time of transfer to secondary school many children with Down syndrome can understand
what is said and asked of them in school, provided the vocabulary used is within their knowledge
and the topics are within their life's learning experience from home and their previous school.
Description of speech and language skills from formal assessments can be misleading to staff
unfamiliar with the tests. For example, an age equivalent for understanding grammar of around
5 to 6 years is good for an 11 year old who has Down syndrome. This level of understanding is
sufficient for understanding the grammar of everyday language at school and at home, including
lesson delivery, given that the pupil will have an assistant to repeat what is required of him
or her, write down key points in a list, and help to ensure that he or she understands and can
remember. Vocabulary knowledge is typically higher than levels for grammar, and is sometimes
Speech and conversation skills vary enormously and some young people experience great difficulties
in learning to speak clearly and in grammatically correct sentences. This does not mean they
understand less than more articulate pupils with Down syndrome. Many pupils will also have sufficient
use and clarity of spoken language to convey their meaning, although rarely does expression
of ideas in language match their understanding. Communication can be easily affected by situational
factors. A hostile environment, unsympathetic listener, anxiety, perceived pressure, embarrassment
or lack of confidence may result in discrepancies in the individual person's communicative skills
and performance in and out of class.
Delays in gross and fine motor skills are associated with Down syndrome
These will influence handwriting ability and participation in sports in particular. Information
about the pupils development of motor skills, agility, participation in sports, issues related
to health (e.g. heart) and fatigue levels is also relevant for training staff, especially on
a large, multi-level site or where location of the Learning Support Department is at a distance
from many of the classrooms.
Academic attainment levels, UK curriculum
In our experience, pupils around the age of transfer to secondary school often have attainments
levels between W (working towards level 1) and level 2 (average for children aged 7 years) on
the UK National Curriculum. Their skills continue to develop, with some pupils working at around
level 3 (average for children aged 9) towards the latter part of their secondary education.
At transfer age 11 to 12 many pupils have begun to understand money, are learning early multiplication
and division and to tell the time. Literacy attainments are usually to a higher standard than
achievements in numeracy, and pupils are often working at around a 6 to 7 year level at the
age of transfer. Some pupils have literacy skills beyond this level at age 11, and may be above
their chronological age in reading ability, but may still have weaknesses remembering and
understanding the information they are able to read, depending upon their language knowledge.
Some pupils with lower levels of skill attainments have similar levels of understanding and
good social skills that help them to succeed in secondary school. Social and academic skills
will continue to develop with increasing age, school and life experience.
We have observed that secondary education has some advantages compared with the last two years
prior to transfer from primary school. Often Learning Support is better developed and resourced
in a large secondary school and pupils benefit from working with a variety of specialist subject
The curriculum and differentiation
Not outside the range
In our experience, there are usually other pupils in large comprehensive secondary schools working
at similar levels of academic achievement to pupils with Down syndrome, particularly in literacy
and numeracy. If there is a need for secondary school staff to become more skilled at meeting
the varied needs for a wide range of pupils, schools can arrange training for subject teachers
on differentiation and lesson planning.
Each individual needs a different amount of support or help to access the information and participate
in lessons, and with adequate differentiation by the teacher, clear visual resources or visual
aids, and help as necessary for each individual, all lessons can be successful learning experiences
for the majority of young people with Down syndrome.
It is the teacher's responsibility to ensure that the standard of differentiation required is
achieved and to identify areas for development when working with Learning Support Assistants.
Arrangements between the teacher and Learning Support Assistant for the level and type of support
the pupil needs during whole class teaching, working in pairs, small groups, independently and
for peer tutoring will also need to be established and developed. Communication between subject
teacher's, specialist support teachers and Learning Support Assistants supporting different
subjects is essential and school should plan for meeting time or establish other means of communication
and feedback between all involved. Arrangements for managing pupils individual education plans
(IEP) and developing cross curricular skills offer opportunities for improving communication
Lessons should be well structured with an outline of content and aims at the beginning, summary
of key points as the lesson progresses and a review at the end. If transitions are signalled
clearly, and the lesson is delivered with enthusiasm, clarity and a rapid pace then principles
for good teaching have been applied. If a teacher communicates a brief and simple form of each
lesson to the pupil and assistant, ideally with written notes, and obtains resources or indicates
to the Learning Support Assistant how and where to obtain resources and activities to teach
and illustrate key points, then most lessons can be accessible to the pupil.
Lesson plans in advance
We think it is good practice for lesson plans to be given to assistants in advance of lessons,
to enable the assistants to be more confident and have more authority within the lesson. This
is especially important for assistants supporting pupils with variable behaviour. Assistants
may also have their own ideas for suitable resources, pictures and practical materials, and
knowledge about the lesson in advance enables them to use their skills as Learning Support Assistants
to the full.
Main points and small steps
Trained and experienced Learning Support Assistants will know how to break down information
into small steps, will try not to teach too many concepts at once and can help to present work
and activities visually. Writing frames are particularly helpful for differentiating input (in
all subject areas) as well as aiding written output. Pupils should be encouraged to convey their
understanding and ideas through writing, with key words, lists or maps, so that they develop
the main purposes of writing, without the simultaneous need to construct grammatically correct
Additions to serial presentation of information through flow diagrams, summaries or continuous
text, include concept maps, story webs and boards and other visual ways of representing information
and identifying associations. These strategies are useful for input and output of information
and are particularly useful for those with writing difficulties or who find it difficult to
plan and sequence a series of ideas and sentences. Creating grammatically correct sentences
can be targeted separately, or after the main points have been established. Work on sentence
formation will help to develop the pupil's spoken language skills. These methods can be used
to assess comprehension and can be applied to social as well as academic learning.
School development for inclusion
Secondary schools are working towards becoming more inclusive for all children. The number of
pupils with significant needs influences the priority a school gives to creating change and
developing adequate school procedures to achieve success. This point is made in an article about
a secondary school that accepted a relatively large number of pupils with moderate and severe
learning difficulties in one intake due to policy change in the London Borough of Newham
Staff need training and support
At the classroom level, not all staff are willing or able (without help and support themselves)
to understand, teach, plan lessons, prepare work and provide homework for their new pupil with
significant learning difficulties. It is our experience that most are willing to try and are
usually surprised by their pupils' abilities as well as their own skills. We may have experience
locally of schools with particularly good attitude, intentions and procedures for delivering
and developing inclusive practices, and hope that we do not have an over positive view of the
current state for secondary age pupils with Down syndrome.
Learning Support is a central facility of the school
If schools are planning to develop excellence, the Learning Support Department, a room for preparation
and display of resources, a photocopier, computer(s) and colour printer should be located in
the 'heart' of the school, central for easy access by teaching staff, support staff and pupils.
'Learning Support' will be an important and integral part of any comprehensive or non-selective
school. All staff should know about the procedures for using facilities and obtaining resources
for all pupils with learning disabilities and other individual needs that they teach. The design
of the Learning Support Department should allow room for preparation and storage of resources
and room or other areas for small group work. The Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator (SENCO),
support teachers and learning support assistants should have adequate office accommodation and
other spaces for working and training. Staff (including Learning Support Assistants) should
have flexible access to rooms, photocopiers, computer facilities, library, teaching resources,
and publications for staff development and training.
Knowledge about the school budget and training in allocation of funds towards learning support
and for materials for pupils with special educational needs is also advisable. Many teachers
do not understand the funding for meeting pupils needs, and honesty about funding arrangements
and the school's responsibility to spend its money for pupils with additional needs for the
benefit of those pupils is likely to be helpful. Pupils with additional needs do cost more money
to educate and include and funding arrangements allow for this. Spending extra money on pupils
with additional needs does not 'take away' resources from others. Initial outlay on books and
resources or staff training, initiated due to the arrival of a pupil with Down syndrome, will
benefit many pupils who do not have Down syndrome and help the process of making the school
more inclusive for all pupils.
The responsibilities of Heads and Governors
School Governors should be included in training, and senior management must take responsibility
for developing good practice in this field. At training days we occasionally meet special educational
needs co-ordinators and heads of department that are very concerned about how to gain co-operation
of staff to differentiate work to the standard required, as well as for treating all pupils
with equality, respect and sensitivity. It is clear that these issues are not about having a
pupil with Down syndrome, they are about weak practice for many pupils and require action from
the senior management of the school. Fortunately, such schools are in a minority in our experience,
although all schools require more work on differentiation to the level that enables greater
numbers of pupils with moderate and severe learning difficulties to be successfully included.
New challenges for pupils
Size of school and independence on site
Most of the young people we know have adapted extremely well to secondary schools they have
transferred to with other members of their primary school. Learning how to function in a large
school (up to 1900), move location from lesson to lesson and be a member of a tutor group has
not been difficult. Many pupils benefit from a clear plan of the school, colour coded, showing
subject areas and key staff names. Concerns about the pupil's ability to adjust to an increased
school size has often been raised as reason for not continuing from a primary to a mainstream
secondary school: our experience would suggest the opposite – that the experience of responsibility
and independence in a large community school has been positive for most young people. Secondary
school sites, although large and complex compared with most primary schools, are small compared
to the wider community we hope the pupils will live in as adults and they provide excellent
learning opportunities for independently moving around in a monitored environment. Many pupils
experience more freedom and responsibility than they have ever been allowed in their life before
and enjoy this.
Change of location for lessons
Change of location, pupil groupings, subject teachers and sometimes a change of Learning Support
Assistant can be refreshing from the pupil's point of view. The short breaks between leaving
a lesson and joining a new lesson allow for valuable social interaction as well as exercise.
When staff think pupils are ready or when pupils request to do so, they should change from lesson
area to lesson area independently, meeting their assistants at the arranged classrooms, conduct
themselves in tutor times and spend lunch and break times independent of additional adult support.
Typically, this happens gradually during the first year. If pupils need support at these times
it is preferable to use the support of peers rather than adult staff support. As for all pupils,
it is easier to transfer and share a tutor group with at least some known peers from primary
school. The support of friends will continue to be needed as pupils progress through school.
It is socially inappropriate for pupils to repeat year groupings within school.
Mastering the use of a timetable has been straightforward for most pupils. Visual symbols for
each lesson can be added to make the timetables more interesting using information technology.
The use of a homework timetable needs to be learned and help is needed at home and from school
to learn this new skill. Timetables for lessons and homework can be made easier to follow by
clear presentation and use of colour.
Homework should be planned to reinforce teaching of the 'main parts' the pupil needs to learn.
Set homework equitably for ability: home work is important but must be able to be completed
by the pupil.
Type and use of support
Schools, parents and the Local Education Authority should explore issues relating to support
on an individual pupil basis. This will ensure that each individual's learning and language
needs continue to be supported when he or she transfers to and progresses through secondary
school. It must be stressed again that pupils with Down syndrome are not all the same. Support
for many pupils with Down syndrome is in the form of a learning support assistant, who, under
the guidance of the teacher, sets work that can be completed independently, either in one chunk
or in smaller pieces, returning as necessary for explanation, discussion, or summary near the
end of the lesson. Learning Support Assistants should not sit next to pupils all of the time.
Pupils in the secondary schools we are most familiar with receive around 25 hours of learning
support assistance and some pupils receive teaching support in addition to this. The latter
is more likely to be necessary if the school does not have special teaching arrangements or
focused teaching groups for children of lower ability.
Where 'setting' is in place, consideration should be given to placing a student with Down syndrome
in a set with well motivated peers to ensure that the student has access to good models of learning
and behaviour. Most pupils can manage with more than one or two assistants supporting them,
but too many assistants can lead to inconsistency in behaviour management (which is important
for some pupils) and lack of continuity between lessons.
Meeting additional needs
Focused teaching groups
Meeting individual needs by attending a focused teaching group for literacy
numeracy, conversation, social skills, life skills or studying an alternative to General Certificate
of Secondary Education course is unlikely to present difficulties for the pupil in a school
where going to different locations for different subjects or purposes is normal. Difficulties
may arise if choices are made without the involvement of the pupil and discussion with the pupil's
parents. Subjects that are hard for the pupil at the curriculum level may still be favoured
by a motivated and supported pupil, and we advise that school staff do not prejudge what subjects
each individual will enjoy and learn from based on their assessed abilities.
Speech and Language Therapy
Most pupils will benefit from continued speech and language therapy through their teenage years.
Even pupils with clear, grammatical speech will benefit from help to continue to improve their
understanding, knowledge, conversation skills, appreciation of themes and topic changes and
social use of language. Many pupils may also have issues relating to speech clarity and require
continued work to improve their production and use of spoken language. Guidance for staff on
how to facilitate practice and help develop confidence in talking for different purposes and
in different situations will also be helpful.
Pupils with additional needs in the area of behaviour rarely fall outside of the range of needs
of some other pupils in school. If a pupil has behaviours that are considered very difficult
to manage in school then a secondary school with strengths in including pupils with emotional
and behavioural difficulties is more likely to be successful for meeting this pupil's needs.
Most secondary schools have some pupils with emotional and behaviour difficulties: ways of establishing
and communicating individual arrangements, working within the whole school behaviour plan and
the co-ordination of curricular and pastoral systems will apply to all pupils with these additional
needs. The secondary school's Educational Psychologist should be able to help with individual
arrangements if the team in school needs more help. Knowledge based on research into the range
and types of behaviour difficulties experienced by adolescents with Down syndrome can be informative,
especially if paired with evidence of successful interventions. In our experience, the most
successful plans at school have been based on the principles and knowledge about behavioural
interventions for all young people of secondary age. This includes understanding of special
needs as a function of social context and using information gained from assessment, partnership
with parents, quality of relationships, achievement in the curriculum and issues related to
Qualifications: developing alternative accredited courses for key stage 4
Change in this area has been rapid in the last two years and will continue to be so. New courses
are being accredited, developed and introduced in most secondary schools as alternatives and
additions to General Certificate of Secondary Education. The most recent development in alternative
accreditation at key stage 4 is the introduction of the new Entry Level which is designed to
recognise and accredit achievement for pupils at key stage 4 who are working below grade G in
General Certificate of Secondary Education or foundation level of General National Vocational
Qualification. If a team of staff have not yet been assigned responsibility for finding out
about alternatives and their suitability for their pupils and staff, then the arrival of a pupil
with Down syndrome will make this an additional need for school. New courses may not be needed
for several years, but the school should have development in this area and be ready for the
needs of the pupil with Down syndrome in years 10 and 11. Most pupils with Down syndrome take
some General Certificate of Secondary Education courses, and are likely to continue to do so
even with an increased range of alternatives. In addition, most awarding bodies have developed
Certificates of Achievement which are designed for pupils at key stage 4 who are at levels 1,
2 or 3 or who are borderline General Certificate of Secondary Education candidates. Many of
these are co-teachable with the General Certificate of Secondary Education courses.
Creating opportunities for social learning
Pupils with Down syndrome vary widely in their social development and their skills will continue
to develop with increasing age and experience. To help young people learn they need suitable
learning opportunities: schools, families and communities need to work together to enable learning
and development to take place.
A social curriculum should be an integral part of education in school
Social skills do not develop without help for many pupils who do not have learning disabilities,
but having a learning disability places children and young people at greater risk of missing
opportunities for learning essential life skills at certain stages of their lives. All involved
need sensitivity to these issues and to work together to best help these young people. Pupils
with Down syndrome may not learn some social skills as quickly as some other pupils in secondary
school, but there are many years in which to develop and learn through continued education and
social learning opportunities.
The pupil with Down syndrome should fit within a framework for the social development for all
pupils. If they do not, then this framework may benefit from being made wider. If pupils are
far behind peers in terms of social skills, school and parents should work together to target
and improve social skills and behaviour. Encourage staff to look beyond the person's learning
disability – an academic or cognitive assessment is but one dimension on which to measure and
judge a person. High intelligence does not guarantee good social skills, good mental health
or a successful career and staff should look for, reward and nurture positive characteristics
for success as members of society in all pupils. All staff must treat the pupil with Down syndrome
with the same respect as others of their age.
Relationships and social context matter
Typically, pupils with Down syndrome will know if they are not liked and can react badly if
not treated well or treated equally. They may be less able to deal with their perceptions, to
discuss them with others or to develop the 'buffers' that help many other pupils cope with difficult
situations at home or school, through close friendships with peers. They are likely to be less
able to protect themselves or compensate for poor treatment by teachers or other pupils.
Across the curriculum
Staff should try to ensure that skills are taught in ways that promote social inclusion, with
respect for each individual's social learning needs and school context, across all curricular
areas. Temporarily, this may not always be possible for some pupils in some teaching situations,
but should always be a goal to be working towards.
Equality and responsibility
There may be more areas of equality than staff initially think in that some of the secondary
curriculum is new to all pupils, for example, modern languages, learning more about music, new
sports, new art and craft or dramatic experiences. The person with Down syndrome may not be
particularly disadvantaged and may be as confident as others to try new activities, depending
upon personality and learning style. Offering responsibilities in lessons, at break times, and
in extracurricular activities, and rewarding appropriate, thoughtful and responsible behaviour
during lessons will help to develop self confidence and self esteem.
Extra curricular activities
Most secondary schools have a range of extracurricular activities. If these seem too specialised
or aimed at developing high levels of achievements in specific fields, then perhaps extending
the range of clubs that can include pupils of varying ability should be a priority for school.
Access to the learning support department at lunch time, for access to games and activities,
for conversation, or for learning and social support should be considered, as well as participation
in a homework club. Pupils should visit and watch a range of school activities so that they
can make their own choice of extracurricular activities. Encouraging a pupil to join several
school activities and having social activities on the pupil's IEP will help to offer a range
of opportunities for social learning outside of the classroom.
Personal and Social Education
Personal and Social Education (PSE) should not be focused exclusively on the needs of the pupil
with Down syndrome. It should also include the needs of the staff and other pupils, and enable
them to develop their understanding of the needs and expectations of pupils with learning disabilities.
'Citizenship' training is in place in many secondary schools, even if only in a small way. With
more awareness, staff and peers are more likely to give appropriate feedback when interacting
with the pupil around school, which will have positive effects on all aspects of social learning,
It is likely that the nature of the 'mutuality' of some friendships at mainstream school during
adolescence will change, although the support of friends who do not have Down syndrome can continue
through to adulthood, especially if the person with Down syndrome has attended his or her local
community school and continues to live in his or her community as an adult.
Friendships can be helped to flourish informally, through peer support in class and around school.
Even a little staff awareness of the pupils friendships and how to enable these to continue
to be maintained, or at least not be extinguished through thoughtlessness, can make a significant
difference to an individual's life. An excellent book by Debbie Staub entitled
Threads  provides information on the importance of friendships and the benefits
of inclusion, and provides useful suggestions for families, teachers and others interested in
supporting children and young people's relationships in inclusive schools and in the community.
Although most of the examples are friendships in younger children, the issues and advice discussed
can be extrapolated to teenagers.
Planning peer support
Relationships can also be helped to develop through planning and structuring peer support for
specific activities, functions, events and times of the day, in and out of school. Many schools
use different 'buddy' systems and train their 'buddies' according to their function (e.g. to
manage conflict, to play with or befriend pupils at break and lunch times, to help another to
access an activity they could not access without help, to help manage bullying within school).
In some schools, children as young as infant age are trained as 'buddies' for specific projects
in school. 'Buddy systems' are becoming common in more junior schools and are usually implemented
for specific purposes in secondary schools. As well as helping a pupil with Down syndrome socially
and practically, pupils with Down syndrome should also be considered for training as a 'Buddy'
for others, depending upon the systems in place and the responsibilities entailed.
Creating circles of friends
'Circles' of friends is an approach to getting people to think about the importance of having
friends in our lives. This approach has been used in many different ways and by many teachers
and educational professionals who work with children and adults with disabilities
If a school does not have experience of managing 'circles' find an area Educational Psychologist
with this as a specialism who can help to get a 'circle' underway. Training is available and
is worth exploring locally for all pupils in school who are experiencing a degree of social
Unless a Local Education Authority is fully inclusive for all pupils with learning and language
disabilities, it is likely that the pupil will need to have opportunities created for them to
meet with people with similar disabilities to themselves. We think it is important that these
opportunities are provided through adolescence – people with learning disabilities may not choose
friends or partners that have similar learning disabilities but this opportunity should be there
for them. In adolescence particularly, as young people explore issues that are important for
them with their peers, and make their own choices and mistakes, young people with learning disabilities
should not be prevented from doing likewise on equal terms with their peers. Currently in the
UK, parents of pupils in mainstream secondary schools have the major responsibility for meeting
this need – it is difficult for school to set up and manage suitable and supportive social and
leisure situations. It need not be impossible though, especially if local special and mainstream
schools are working together to develop extracurricular activities through after school clubs.
Currently, participation in school sports teams, inter-school tournaments and competitive leagues
is more likely in a secondary school for pupils with special educational needs with excellence
in sport and leisure activities. Many young people with Down syndrome belong to local youth
clubs, sports clubs, dance and drama clubs designed around their needs and skill levels that
also include non-disabled peers (often siblings). In our experience, these groups have usually
been initiated and developed by parents of young people with learning disabilities, sometimes
with financial support from leisure services or social services departments or from voluntary
Developing skills for living independently are as important for pupils with Down syndrome as
for all other pupils. The aims of the secondary school PSE curriculum are as appropriate as
for any other child in a mainstream school. Pupils will need extra help understanding issues
that are outside of their life experience - as do some other children. Those pupils that have
led full and varied lives and been provided with many opportunities for learning about life
by their families are likely to be more knowledgeable. Pupils should not be underestimated on
account of having Down syndrome, but should be treated like other pupils, with staff at school
understanding that most pupils with Down syndrome will have the same needs for skills in their
adult life as others do – they will work, will need to manage their domestic affairs to some
degree, will travel independently, will have friends and relationships, and will enjoy and participate
in the same range of leisure activities as other people, depending upon their individual preferences.
They will need to know how to recognise (and protect themselves) from abuse of all types and
know how to seek help and who to seek it from. The needs for good teaching resources, differentiation
and clear teaching of life skills are the same as in other subject areas. If it is difficult
to develop a pupil's understanding and confidence in a large group situation then the pupil's
learning may be better supported in a smaller, more specialised group situation.
Like everyone else
When pupils aged 11 and 12 have been due to transfer to secondary education, schools less experienced
in the needs of pupils with learning disabilities have occasionally met the request with a response
that the pupil needs to learn life skills and they do not know how to teach these. Our advice
for staff and parents faced with this initial response would be to target discussion at the
practicalities of life skills for all young people aged 11 to 12. What exactly does this pupil
need to learn at this point in time that others can do and that he or she can't? How can we
go about teaching him or her? This prevents 'life skills' and 'social skills' from being a vague
area in staff minds with little relevance to the practicalities of life for young people of
that age with and without learning disabilities. Schools for pupils with special educational
needs can be helpful here (if not directly then through an Educational Psychologist), as all
will have a curriculum for developing social and life skills, will expect increasing levels
of independence with increasing age and should have administrative procedures to enable the
development of cross curricular skills. No less should be expected in a mainstream school, and
staff may be surprised at the skills their new pupils already have on entering school. What
better opportunity for learning fundamental skills for work in society can there be than the
requirement to be in a set place at a certain time with the right books and equipment, repeated
many times throughout each day over a five year period on a mainstream secondary school site?
As well as obtaining guidance on life skills based on the life skills of peers of similar age,
consideration should be given to the opportunity that each pupil has had to develop life skills.
If they have not needed to develop life skills then they might not have done so. It is easy
to become overprotective and to continue to provide too much assistance, at school and at home.
It is our experience that young people with Down syndrome request independence from their parents
as other young people do and it is important to recognise the benefit of increasingly taking
charge of your own life for self esteem.
Working with families
The majority of pupils with Down syndrome at transfer to secondary school will be learning to
prepare food, make their own packed lunches, make hot drinks, learning to iron and taking responsibility
for household chores. They will also be preparing the equipment they need for each day for school
and for extracurricular activities, choosing their own clothes and footwear, following fashion
in music, T.V. and leisure activities by the age of 11 or 12.
In the community
Enabling the development of life skills outside of the home is more difficult to achieve at
this still quite young age and development is typically slower, usually in relation to issues
of safety. Young people with Down syndrome may feel restricted here compared with their brothers
and sisters or friends, especially towards their mid teen years, depending upon individual circumstances.
Pupils close enough to walk to school without an adult (but with the support of peers) or with
good bus routes are at an advantage, and steps can be taken gradually to achieve these skills
while offering reassurance to the adults that the pupil is safe. Carrying and using a front
door key (even though the home may not be empty on return from school) and short periods of
time left at home without an adult should also have been considered by around the age of 14
to 15 for most pupils. It is extremely helpful if the whole family develop more of an interest
in using public transport (and walking), know the bus routes and teach the geography of the
community in which they live. Being driven about in a car will not teach these skills, although
knowing how to 'phone for, give a location, use and pay for a taxi is an essential life skill.
Carrying money, not losing it or giving it away, is often learned in junior school, beginning
with small amounts of money. Opportunities for spending money are greater in secondary school,
including buying lunch in a canteen. Again, try to use peers or 'buddies' to teach these skills,
and in life skills teaching relate case studies for how to ask for help or to get yourself out
of an overwhelming or 'uncomfortable' situation to daily life in school, as well as to the wider
Use accredited courses
Accredited courses in key stage 4 that develop life skills and result in a recognised qualification
for the pupil at age 16 are likely to be the best way of ensuring that a pupil has been given
adequate teaching of life skills through a curriculum. Learning life skills through real life
experience requires the co-operation of families and communities as well as a course with learning
based at school. Homework, work experience and other work assignments help to develop skills
for living with more autonomy and to prepare young people for more vocational learning at Colleges
of Further Education, where work in learning life skills will continue.
While the article has focussed on how to plan for each pupil's life and education in the secondary
school, the planning should start at least a year before a young person is due to move. A Transition
meeting is essential and should be attended by all involved, including pupil, family, staff
of the current and future schools in order that the secondary school is fully aware of the achievements
and needs of the pupil. While academic needs are always discussed, social needs should also
be on the agenda. It might be helpful, for example, to recruit a circle of friends who are also
moving to the same secondary school to specifically support the student through the transition.
Most pupils in our experience are doing well in secondary schools that have willingly accepted
them and that are committed to meeting a wide range of individual educational needs.
Good practice for children with Down syndrome attending secondary schools is developing fast
as increasing numbers transfer every year. At present, issues for developing good practice are
the same as those for including all pupils with a wide range of individual educational needs
in their local secondary schools. The majority of young people with Down syndrome included in
mainstream secondary schools need a high level of help and support to function well, and good
planning for each individual is a key to success. Good communication within school between all
staff and good communication with parents is essential to success. The role of parents has been
discussed in relation to a number of the topics discussed and teamwork, recognising parents
as full members of the education team, will greatly improve the outcomes for child, family and
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The education support work on which this article is based is supported in part by a grant from
Portsmouth City Council.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contribution of the staff and pupils of St. Lukes
Church of England Secondary School, Portsmouth; Mayfield Secondary School, Portsmouth; Bay House
Grant Maintained Secondary School, Gosport; Crookhorn Secondary School, Waterlooville; Oaklands
Community School, Southampton; and Swanmore Secondary School, Swanmore.
Sue Buckley is Professor of Developmental Disability at the University of Portsmouth and Director
of the Centre for Disability Studies, in the Department of Psychology.
Gillian Bird is Director of Services and Training for Down Syndrome Education International at
the Sarah Duffen Centre, Portsmouth.
Sue and Gillian both provide consultancy and training for schools and LEAs through The Down
Syndrome Educational Trust.
DSE's Reading and Language Intervention for Children with Down Syndrome (RLI) is an evidence-based programme designed to teach reading and language skills to children with Down syndrome.
RLI incorporates best practice in structured activities delivered in fast-paced daily teaching sessions. It was evaluated in a randomised controlled trial and found to improve rates of progress compared to ordinary teaching.
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